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The 2021 Environment Act: a step in the right direction?

environment act wood

In November last year, the Environment Act, which acts as the UK’s new framework of environmental protection, was finally passed into law two years after it was introduced to Parliament. 

The Environment Act was welcomed by many, as after the UK officially left the EU on the 31st January 2021, the EU rules on nature protection, water quality, clean air and other environmental protections were at risk of being abandoned. 

As Client Earth explains, the Environment Act provides the Government with powers to set new binding targets, including for air quality, water, biodiversity, and waste reduction. 

The Environment Act also established a new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which is responsible for holding the Government and other public bodies to account and ensuring that environmental laws are complied with.

“To be delivered effectively and affordably, the targets of the Environment Act must be embedded across government”

Executive Director at The Aldersgate Group, Nick Molho

What is missing from the Environment Act? 

However, several concerns have been raised about the Act both on content and implementation. Sustainability magazine, Edie reported on how MPs voted to block a number of amendments proposed and voted on in the House of Lords, including:

  • Greater provisions for ancient woodland protection in planning frameworks
  • Restrictions on ministerial powers to weaken habitat-related regulations
  • A legal duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers; and
  • Moves to strengthen the independence of OEP 

Commenting on the legislating of the Environment Act, the World Wildlife Foundation’s Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns Katie White said: 

“From a historic legal commitment to restore UK nature by 2030 to laws tackling illegal deforestation and conversion in UK supply chains, this legislation holds great promise and we welcome its passage into law. 

“However, for it to be worth the paper it’s printed on, the UK Government must support a truly independent OEP, provide a clear target to slash the UK’s global environmental footprint and deliver robust measures outlawing both legal and illegal deforestation as soon as it possibly can.

“With nature in freefall and the climate in crisis, there isn’t a moment to waste in bringing good environmental laws into force. Every promise must be kept if we’re to put nature on the path to recovery, and future generations won’t forgive or forget those who fail to act while there’s still time.”

Levelling up the Conversation: Environment Policy 

Similar concerns were raised by Chief Executive of Somerset Wildlife Trust, Georgia Stokes who was a panellist at Chamber’s Levelling Up the Conversation broadcast in Taunton this March. 

In March 2022, Chamber hosted a live studio panel discussion in Taunton, Somerset

Stokes said that while Government targets, such as the Environment Act’s goal to halt wildlife decline by 2030 are useful, it is crucial that they are “actually delivered.” Even though renewable energy can play a key part in getting us to net-zero, we must prioritise the reduction in emissions before all else. 

Stokes further argued that we are facing two interrelated environmental emergencies to be tackled simultaneously: the climate crisis and ecological crises. She called for a legally binding set of targets to restore biodiversity and ecosystems. Despite disagreements on many topics including the benefits of nuclear energy and the expansion of Bristol airport, panellists agreed that more needs to be done to tackle climate change and decarbonise our economy. 

The place of local government 

Yet it seems that time and time again; research groups, charities, voters, activists and many others highlight that there are not enough tools in place to hold governments to account for making promises and targets which they do not meet. 

One key way in which the Government can effectively implement the goals of the Environment Act, including their target to stop the decline of wildlife species by 2030, is to ensure that local and regional governments play a part (and provide them with the right funding). Local authorities can provide significant support in implementing the Environment Act by both providing information and overseeing implementation. 

As The Aldersgate Group’s Executive Director, Nick Molho compellingly argued: “to be delivered effectively and affordably, the targets of the Environment Act must be embedded across government policy in areas such as planning and agriculture”. 

Yet the responsibility for implementing the Environment Act ultimately lies with the Prime Minister. With the current leadership contest between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss underway, many among us are watching what the potential leaders are going to deliver by way of environment and climate change policy. So far, it is not looking good. 

The invisibility of climate policy 

As reported by Open Democracy, neither BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme nor GB News asked foreign secretary Liz Truss a single question about the climate crisis last Thursday while LBC’s Andrew Marr asked two questions on the subject, dedicating a minute and 59 seconds of a half-hour interview to the subject.

In total, the candidates were interviewed for an hour by the three broadcasters, meaning climate questions made up about 3% of the interviews. Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas described this figure as “truly damning” and we can’t help but agree with her. 

environment act, conservative party leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak
Concerns that the environment is not a focus for the Tory leadership contenders, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak

The problem with letting the party decide… 

However, part of the explanation as to why environmental concerns are nearly invisible in the current leadership debate may lie in the fact that current Conservative members are simply not interested. 

A recent YouGov poll found that only 4% of surveyed Conservative members felt that net-zero should be one of their top priority areas. Out of 10 key policy areas, net-zero ranked last in terms of priorities. Clearly, making promises about protecting the environment and curbing the effects of climate change will not secure Sunak or Truss their much-desired spot in 10 Downing Street. 

Final thought

Protecting the environment and curbing the effects of climate change should be the priority of any government, no matter its political standing.

Additionally, the potential fate of the environment should not be decided by 0.2% of the British population who have listened to potential leaders discuss their thoughts on the climate crisis for under two minutes. While there is no quick-fix solution to climate change, there is a relatively clear solution to the current problems of translating environment promises into action and prioritising environment-related policy. 

That solution is, of course, to let the next Prime Minister be decided by the majority of the British public, and to make sure that they spend more than a couple of minutes detailing what they will do to protect the environment, how they will do it and how the progress they make will be measured and reported. 

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